Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Penn & Teller

A number of years ago a Princeton philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt, gave a brilliant lecture, “On Bullshit,”  which was later published as a very short book.  In the book Frankfurt spends some time defining the term, distinguishing it from similar concepts, like a lie or humbug.  He suggests that bullshit is something that is “grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt acknowledges that there are some positive uses of bullshit. It sometimes just allows us to get along.  Rather than struggle at all times with everyone over what the truth is, bullshit is something that we all spout and accept as — if you will excuse the imagery — a type of social lubricant.  We would never be able to get along in large organizations without a fair amount of bullshit, which is part of why we see so much of it in all of our work lives.  Politics, which requires managing conflict, is also a bullshit-laden activity.

While bullshit is unavoidable and sometimes useful, it is overall a very destructive thing.  As Frankfurt puts it, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”  It is corrosive to the very process by which we seek truth by embracing an indifference to the truth.  The triumph of bullshit is not the triumph of falsehood, but the triumph of nihilism.  Bullshit makes us not care about the truth, so why should we care about anything?  To maintain a good society, bullshit must be held in check.

Unfortunately, Frankfurt suspects that bullshit is growing, not being held in check.  It is growing, he suggests because bullshit is a part of communication and as communication grows so does bullshit.  We are talking all of the freakin’ time and on all matters of public and private concern.  The extent to which we are communicating about all of these things far exceeds our ability to know the truth of them or even be concerned with the process of discovering the truth about them.  Facebook and Twitter pre-date Frankfurt’s lecture, but they nicely illustrate the relationship between increasing communication and increasing bullshit.   Frankfurt also blames the rise of bullshit partially on post-modern philosophies that actively promote and rationalize an indifference to the truth.

But I suspect that there is another force at work in the growth of bullshit.  I suspect that as violence becomes less permissible within modern societies, bullshit has substituted for violence as a mechanism for manipulating or coercing others.  The famous Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, once said “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”  I think bullshit is the continuation of violence by other means.

Earlier in our country’s history, before the domestic use of violence was so limited, differences were often settled through violence.  When Carnegie Steel was faced with a strike at a Pittsburgh plant, Henry Clay Frick called out 300 Pinkerton detectives who killed 16 striking workers and wounded 23 more.  Unions were similarly known to take baseball bats to workers who crossed their picket lines.

So when a modern day Andrew Carnegie, like Bill Gates, wants to have his way, he doesn’t hire a private army of Pinkerton detectives to beat us into submission.  Instead, he hires an army of foundation staff and advocacy organizations to spout bullshit.  And in response the unions don’t take up baseball bats, they take up blogging.  Violence, like bullshit, is indifferent to truth; it is simply a mechanism for prevailing.  As violence becomes less available as a strategy for winning a dispute, bullshitting becomes more prominent.

If bullshit is on the rise and is corrosive to a good society, how can we limit or even reduce it?  Science and its weaker sister, social science, are the antitheses of bullshit.  They are enterprises entirely committed to the pursuit of truth.  Unfortunately, bullshit has infiltrated science and social science as those activities become more politicized and embedded within large bureaucratic organizations.  The scientist or social scientist may be as likely to promote bullshit as to man the barricades against it.  Instead, we need something stronger, more resistance to corruption, than the scientist to fight bullshit.  We need the skeptic.

The skeptic is someone entirely devoted to the task of discovering and debunking bullshit.  The skeptic may be a scientist but often isn’t.  And the skeptic can often be mistaken about what is and is not bullshit.  But the skeptic is always on the prowl for bullshit and is even more committed to the process of finding truth than the mere scientist is.

Penn Jillette and Teller are worthy of “The Al” because they are the most active and effective skeptics of our era.  They are illusionists who have extended their professional interest in deceiving others for entertainment  into a professional interest in uncovering and debunking the deception of bullshit for entertainment.  For eight seasons they hosted a series on Showtime that was, appropriately enough, called Bullshit.  They targeted everything from alternative medicine to recycling to lie detectors to the Bible.  The have also crusaded (irony intended) against bullshit in their stage show, in magazine articles, and in TV appearances on other people’s shows.  Penn and Teller speak truth to bullshit.

As it is, we are already knee-deep in bullshit.  Were it not for the efforts of skeptics like Penn and Teller we might well need a life raft.  For this, they deserve “The Al.

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6 Responses to Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Penn & Teller

  1. Greg Forster says:

    When I was a teenager I was a huge P&T fan. They weren’t famous yet outside professional magic circles, but they were getting there. I saw them live a bunch of times and enjoyed it thoroughly. I was a professional myself – I did magic shows at little kids’ birthday parties all through high school – and the better you knew the business, the funnier their subversion of the prevailing conventions was.

    It’s interesting to note that professional illusionists have a long and proud history of debunking psychics, mediums, telekinetics and other frauds. Harry Houdini was almost obsessed with exposing the “spiritualists” who were very fashionable in his day. Johnny Carson, who had been a stage magician himself, booked Uri Gellar on the Tonight Show and then brought a fellow magician on stage to expose Gellar’s fraud on live TV in front of millions.

    It’s partly because we can see the con more clearly, because we use many of the same skills; and partly an anxiety to distance ourselves from them, given that . . . well, we use many of the same skills.

  2. Self-deception is really the greatest facilitator of BS. The problem is not so much that there are con men out there. The bigger problem is that we want to be conned.

    The illusionist who helped Johnny Carson debunk Uri Geller was a guy named James Randi, who also goes by his stage name of The Amazing Randi. Even when Randi revealed how Geller did his tricks, people refused to believe it and accused Randi of secretly possessing super-natural powers. One such incident involved Senator Claiborne Pell, the man after whom federal higher ed vouchers are named. Here’s how Wikipedia described it:

    “Randi has been accused of actually using “psychic powers” to perform acts such as spoon bending. According to James Alcock, at a meeting where Randi was duplicating the performances of Uri Geller, a professor from the University at Buffalo shouted out that Randi was a fraud. Randi said, “Yes, indeed, I’m a trickster, I’m a cheat, I’m a charlatan, that’s what I do for a living. Everything I’ve done here was by trickery.” The professor shouted back: “That’s not what I mean. You’re a fraud because you’re pretending to do these things through trickery, but you’re actually using psychic powers and misleading us by not admitting it.”[33] A similar event involved Senator Claiborne Pell, a believer in psychic phenomena. When Randi personally demonstrated to Pell that he could reveal a concealed drawing that had been secretly made by the senator simply by using trickery, Pell refused to believe that it was a trick, saying, “I think Randi may be a psychic and doesn’t realize it.” Randi has consistently denied having any paranormal powers or abilities.[34]”

    And here is a great video about Randi:

  3. G. Evens says:

    If it is true that the “wages of” B.S. is nihilism, there appears to be some implications.

    First, by reading your various weightings and sources there appears to be less than rigorous science in the field of education in favor of dogma. Scientifically unsupported scholarship is after a just so much B.S.

    Second, by reading your various weightings and sources there appears it appears that our public school students in high numbers simply to not care.

    The current dogma appears to be that all ideas must be tolerated. Does it follow that if no single value is “better than” another value that there is no value is of any real value in any view? Could this mean in practical terms we are de-facto teaching that is not worth the effort to learn? If there is not ultimate objective meaning, intrinsic value or morality does that not logically follow that we are de-facto training nihilist? Could it be that “values free” pedagogy engenders students who have simply been conditioned to be nihilist? After one is trained to be a nihilist it would seem that it might reduce ones natural curiosity to learn new things.

    “It isn’t fair,”, is a common thing for children to say. Children seem to have a strong sense of fairness and they do not see all ideas as equal or equally right. It seems like young children are not developmentally able to be true nihilistIs, it must be trained. In other words they are trained that they must subvert their natural understanding and use B.S. inside the educational system, because that is how the system works. Is it possible that like the old “media is the message”, has a parallel in education namely the method is the message?

    So if any of this is right it could be a complete cycle. The primary values in education are in good part B.S. and that is what is taught. Not everyone advances in this system but the best students become leaders of the B.S. based educational system.

  4. Minnesota Kid says:

    Penn & Teller could get a run for their money from the Myth Busters, who similarly excercise skepticism in evaluating popular myths. The Myth Busters also rely heavily on the scientific method, taking baseline readings and seeking “control” conditions to compare with their “treatment” (they even vary dosage up to absurd levels if necessary). Since the bullshit that the Myth Busters expose is more wide-ranging than mere magic tricks, and they explicitly use science to do it, I’d vote for them over P & T.

  5. […] Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Penn & Teller ( […]

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